Mark Morris brings back his iconic solo dance.
A young saddhu, a lone devotee, with nothing to his name but passion for the form of god he’s chosen to worship and the rag of a dhoti wrapped around his loins, crouches in a ball in dim golden light at the back of the stage. He slowly raises his head and shoulders, stands, and strikes a pose. Then another. The poses form a sequence. They’re reminiscent of figures in Indian temple sculpture, but not quite classical somehow. One arm is outstretched like an arrow; the hand on the other, palm outward, covers eyes that gaze up and away. Or his hands hang limply from his arms, bent like dog paws. Or, with both palms down and open toward the audience, his head bobbles on his neck, looking like something between an elegant Indian dance move and a camp imitation of a kitschy Eastern European tchotchke—you know, the one your mother brought back from Romania. His torso welcomes torque. His fingertips and palms are painted betel red. So are the outlines of his feet. A sitar whines, a tabla strikes, a raga singer with a plaintive voice wills the devotee to action.
Thus begins “O Rangasayee,” by Mark Morris, one of the great modern dance solos of the twentieth century. Morris made this work for himself as a young man early in 1984. In December that year, he performed it as part of a sensational program in BAM’s Lepercq Space, after which The New Yorker’s Arlene Croce anointed him the Next Great Thing and he exploded onto the scene. It’s not clear how the audience that night had found their way there—I knew someone who worked a restaurant kitchen with some company members—or what they were expecting—but had a meteor crashed through the ceiling and landed smack in the middle of the gymnasium-like space, smoking and spitting flames at the bleachers, it wouldn’t have been met with a greater sense of awe.
“O Rangasayee” has been out of repertory since then. When Morris included it last week as part of the Sounds of India series he brought to this year’s White Light Festival at Lincoln Center, many in the audience were too young ever to have seen it before. Morris isn’t much given to reviving old work, nor to resetting roles he made for himself on other dancers. And the prospect of seeing someone else execute them—above all this one, perhaps—seemed as daunting to this viewer as it must have been to the dancer taking it on.
Dallas McMurray, one of the Mark Morris Dance Group’s senior members, doesn’t have the tangled mop of dark locks to shake that Morris did back in the day. Nor does he move with Morris’s weighty, sculptural presence. But McMurray has much to bring to the role: an androgynous quality every bit his own; a forlorn, impassive expression, as if he’s resigned himself to be possessed by dance and deity; and a body, not unlike Morris’s then, that’s massively strong and babyishly ungainly.
The twenty-minute course of “O Rangasayee” is a marathon by any measure, and by the end McMurray was glowing with sweat. The quirky movements, sequences, and poses that comprise the choreography reappear again and again, starting to become friendly, reassuringly familiar, then beautiful; the mind welcomes their repetition with subtle variations as it might the tones of a mantra. Then the piece accelerates. Bliss overwhelms the dancer. He is possessed. There’s no way to fake this, and McMurray inhabits the whirlwind as if life depends on it. To call the audience entranced would restore that word to its original meaning. Entranced we were, and so was he. McMurry ends in spasms on the floor. He has given in, been taken over, and offered himself up.
Part of the genius of “O Rangasayee” is that it returns one of the oldest and hoariest of modern dance tropes—the exotic Eastern solo of Denishawn days—to its primal roots in the ecstatic. This layering of homages both to antique and modern dance sources characterizes other of Morris’s greatest work. But, like the headwaters of the Ganges, nowhere else is it as bracingly clear and pure as here. Morris by now has a substantial history of rich engagement with India and Indian dance forms, and was thus the ideal choice to curate this festival. But this powerfully transporting youthful work preceded all his visits and studies and lengthy stays. That “O Rangasayee” distilled something so essential so early, and with such brilliance, may be an argument in favor of reincarnation. It is a dancer’s credo.
Jeff Seroy is senior vice president at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and one of the Daily’s correspondents.